Ethanol too corny to be a viable alternative fuel source

by: Nathan Cole
Freshman, History
Wake Forest, NC

In 2007, George W. Bush signed the Energy Act, declaring oil refineries to use 100 million gallons of ethanol by 2008, and 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022. Ever since then, ethanol has been championed as the new alternative to petroleum, a step forward in ending our dependence on oil. It has been blended into our gasoline by government authorization, and the Environmental Protection Agency recently released a mandate for 2013 that called for 14 million gallons of ethanol be produced. This action by the EPA is nothing new; in 2012 they released a similar mandate that called for oil refineries to blend 8.7 million gallons of cellulosic fuel (ethanol) into gasoline. However, recent events have indicated just how unstable an alternative source ethanol will be.

There are currently 211 ethanol-producing plants worldwide, yet 20 of these have been forced to cease production, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, due to the drought that began to affect prices last May. Ethanol production already drives corn prices, and thus, food prices, up, as roughly 39 percent of our local US corn crop is used for ethanol production, according to the National Corn Growers Association. This drought has slashed ethanol production, and Washington and the EPA are punishing refineries with fines for not being able to meet the set quotas of ethanol blending. The fact that the drought hit American crops is an even larger problem for these plants, as having to import corn from other countries is too expensive to be cost-beneficial. Companies can opt to buy RINs, which are credits to replace having to blend ethanol into gasoline, but the cost of these RINs has increased from seven cents to one dollar since the beginning of 2013. These rising costs of production are causing twenty American ethanol plants to shut down, possibly losing 1,000 American jobs.

The real victim, however, is the American consumer. When the cost of refining petroleum goes up, we pay for it at the pump in the cost of gasoline. This is a harsh penalty to pay, especially during our economic state, when a gallon of gas costs upwards of four dollars. One can only wonder what the politicians in Washington are thinking when they claim to want to ease the load off of American taxpayers during this economy, yet implement environmental measures that hurt us in an everyday way.

Currently, ethanol is restricted to a 10 percent dilution in gasoline, as any higher percentage of dilution would quickly ruin a car’s engine. The Obama administration has previously retreated from attempts to raise this amount to 15 percent; luckily for automobile consumers around the country, car manufacturers refused to comply with these White House plans, threatening warranty-related lawsuits caused from the effect of increased ethanol use on cars’ engines. There is the main problem right there. Ethanol cannot replace oil, all it can do is be blended in it. If we were to completely replace oil with cellulosic fuel, our automobile engines would not be able to run.

Why are we so fixated on ethanol as a viable fuel source? As of right now, corn is not our sole option for alternative fuel, and furthermore, we are not sure of the finiteness of petroleum. Petroleum experts worldwide have agreed that no one has anything more than an unclear idea of how much gas or oil our planet has, or of how long that supply will last. In 1989, the oil drilling site of Eugene Island Block 330, located in the Gulf of Mexico, dropped production from around 15,000 barrels of oil a day to 4,000 barrels a day. The oil supply it had tapped seemed to be on its way to depletion. However, the following year, production ran up to 13,000 barrels a day and has stayed consistent as of 2011. This type of phenomenon is not restricted to just the Gulf, however. In the Middle East, petroleum reserves have more than doubled in the past 25 years, while OPEC takes out more than 30 million barrels of oil per day. Worldwide oil production has not yet peaked, according to Dr. Thomas Ahlbrandt, chief of the United States Geological Survey’s Petroleum Geology Branch in Denver, Colorado, and previous predictions in the past have consistently been proven wrong by the amount of oil we end up discovering.

Petroleum isn’t the only available option when it comes to fueling our cars, and needless to say, neither is ethanol. A new type of car, powered by hydrogen, seems to have potential in its lack of pollution as well as its practicality in fuel economy. Having a much better fuel life than the electric cars we have come to know and love (or hate), the only emission this new hydrogen car has is water, as this is the only way the used hydrogen needs to be expelled from the vehicle. The only problem with these alternative vehicles right now is their cost, but with continual development, this obstacle can be overcome.

With all these other viable sources, ethanol appears to be an increasingly pointless endeavor, driving up food prices and jeopardizing American jobs. While petroleum may or may not be the best type of fuel in the long run, merely relying on such a source as ethanol is certainly not the next best option.

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